Millions across Southeast bracing for thunderstorm, tornado outbreak

The National Weather Service is forecasting tornadoes and severe thunderstorms in the south on St. Patrick's Day. Image courtesy the National Weather Service
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The National Weather Service is forecasting tornadoes and severe thunderstorms in the south on St. Patrick's Day. Image courtesy the National Weather Service

Hundreds of schools, COVID-19 vaccination clinics, businesses and more shut down across the Deep South on Wednesday as forecasters warned of waves of severe weather including massive tornadoes, downpours and hail the size of tennis balls.

While nearly 16 million people in the Southeast could see powerful storms, the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center said, a region of about 3 million stretching from southeastern Arkansas and northeastern Louisiana across Mississippi into Alabama was at high risk for big twisters that stay on the ground for miles, straight winds up to 80 mph and destructive hail.

The weather service issued tornado warnings in Texas, Mississippi and Alabama, but there were no immediate reports of damage. Tornado watches included parts of six states.

Dozens of schools systems in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi canceled classes, switched to online learning or dismissed students early, and Mississippi State University moved to virtual instruction because of the potential for danger at its campuses in Starkville and Meridian.

Large vaccination clinics where hundreds of people an hour can get shots without leaving their vehicles were canceled in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. In the Mississippi capital of Jackson, state employees were warned to head to stairwells if they hear weather sirens. Near Birmingham, labor organizers canceled an outdoors event at an Amazon facility where workers are voting on union representation.

At least two waves of storms were likely, forecasters said, and the worst might not hit until a cold front passes overnight.

“The biggest question is how strong to severe these storms are going to be and if they’re going to be tornadic right off the bat,” said Gary Goggins, a forecaster with the National Weather Service office for Birmingham.

Gov. Kay Ivey placed Alabama under a state of emergency, and communities across the South used social media to share the location of tornado shelters. Dozens of people gathered in a gymnasium that was opened as a shelter in Tuscaloosa, where more than 50 people died in a twister during a weather outbreak that occurred 10 years ago next month.

In Jackson, Tennessee, officials said a civic center and the regional airport would be open for residents seeking shelter.

The NWS suggests the following tips during tornadic weather:

  • Stay Weather-Ready: Continue to listen to local news or a NOAA Weather Radio to stay updated about tornado watches and warnings.
  • At Your House: If you are in a tornado warning, go to your basement, safe room, or an interior room away from windows. Don’t forget pets if time allows.
  • At Your Workplace or School: Follow your tornado drill and proceed to your tornado shelter location quickly and calmly. Stay away from windows and do not go to large open rooms such as cafeterias, gymnasiums, or auditoriums.
  • Outside: Seek shelter inside a sturdy building immediately if a tornado is approaching. Sheds and storage facilities are not safe. Neither is a mobile home or tent. If you have time, get to a safe building.
  • In a vehicle: Being in a vehicle during a tornado is not safe. The best course of action is to drive to the closest shelter. If you are unable to make it to a safe shelter, either get down in your car and cover your head, or abandon your car and seek shelter in a low lying area such as a ditch or ravine.

Staff Writer Kristen Spicker contributed to this report.